Watch More Holocaust Child Survivor Stories
As many as 1.5 million children were killed during the Holocaust. Young children, along with the elderly, ill and disabled, whom German authorities could not deploy in forced labor, were often the first to be sent to extermination camps. Others died from starvation and exposure in Jewish ghettos.
But some children managed to survive, at times because they hid with their families, or because relatives sacrificed themselves to protect them, or because they pretended not to be Jewish.
One of those survivors was Krystyna Kohn, pictured above in 1937 at 5-years-old with her mother Janina Kohn and her uncle Marek Mersyk in Warsaw. Janina and Marek both graduated from Warsaw University Law School and were practicing lawyers. During the war, while trying join the Polish underground resistance and hiding from the Nazis, Marek was fooled by criminals who collected bounty for captured Jews. He was separated from his family and never seen again. Krystyna, her mother, and her cousin Edward were luckier. They survived through luck, deliberate planning and pretending to be Catholic. Krystyna and Edward would later study at Warsaw University and become doctors, but immigrated to Detroit, Michigan in 1969 to escape the anti-Semitism of the Communists.
Never Forget to Lie filmmaker Marian Marzynski visited more of these child survivors, now aging and spread across the globe, to explore their life paths, identities and memories.
During the war, Krystyna Budnicka, her five siblings and their parents hid from the Germans in a network of sewers under a Warsaw ghetto street where her father had built a bunker. More than a year later, only she and one of her brothers survived. A retired teacher for children with learning disabilities, Budnicka speaks to children about the Holocaust in her free time. In this video, she shows Marian haunting fragments of a German propaganda film shot in the Warsaw ghetto and recalls her survival.
Marian invites child survivors who had fled Poland years earlier to meet Krystyna Budnicka. She tells them why she abandoned Judaism to become a Christian and why she never left Poland. “For being Jew, one could be murdered. For being one, you lost your family. I felt it was unfair and I felt no guilt for myself,” she tells them. “I’m still a Jew, but of Christian religion.”
Marian visits Felicja Bryn, a 74-year-old child survivor who lost both of her parents in the war and was adopted by a Christian couple. The last thing her father told her was to never let others know she was Jewish, and she spent her years pretending to be a Christian and living in fear of being discovered. “My fear was overwhelming,” Felicja tells Marian. Her memoir, Never Forget to Lie, published in 2005, recounts her struggle to survive and to discover her true identity.
Wiktoria Sliwowska is a professor of history in Warsaw. She remembers how her parents hid her under the bed when German soldiers raided the ghetto. From under the bed, she heard shots and knew her family was gone.
Maja Hrabowska survived the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center; as a child, she also survived the Holocaust. She recalls asking her mother why she was born amidst such hardship.